How to Get Away from Reliance on Belts

By Matt S.
Originally Posted August 24th, 2018

I am often known for the fact that I’ve spent the better part of a decade studying the history of the belt system. The history is something I would say I am very enthusiastic about. However when it comes to the practice of utilizing belts systems I am actually a less-is-more kind of guy.

Belts were originally used to denote assistant instructors vs students, which coincided with the concept of Yudansha vs Mudansha. This system only contained a white belt (Mudansha) and a black belt (Yudansha), and the system worked really well for around 50 years. It is also important to note that this system is still in use today in some styles of Karate, Aikido, and Jujutsu.

When the colored belts were introduced, the idea was that students outside of Japan needed more tangible motivation. So Mikinosuke Kawaishi intoduced the original colored belt system in Europe around 1937. When the idea of an expanded belt system made it back to Japan it was generally rejected. Eventually the Kodokan adopted one additional belt, making their Mudansha system for adults White and Brown, then White and Violet for youths. Karate adopted two belts using White, Green, and Brown for Mudansha. Again both these systems are still used to this day.

As martial arts became more global more belts and more systems became adopted. However too much focus on belts has had a negative impact on martial arts. Why?

-Too much concern about getting that next belt, rather than truly developing skills taught at each individual level.
-Too much investment in “social hierarchies,” rather than positive social relationships.
-Too much political jockeying based around belts and ranks.
-Too much focus on money generation centered around belt promotions, rather than a focus on student development.

And they’re off!

Thus in recent years we have seen people who have been attempting to combat this focus on belts. For example, when Jesse Enkamp ran his large seminars, the required dress code included that every student and instructor wear a Momo-Iro Obi (Peach Colored Belt/ Pink Belt) rather than their own belt. Another example is how Royce Gracie usually teaches seminars wearing a Blue Belt rather than the coveted Black Belt or Red Belt. Many schools no longer wear the “traditional” uniform and now wear modern sports wear instead, or have a full “gi season” and wear sports wear the rest of the year.

Photo credit: Karate by Jesse

So how can we get away from a focus on belts?

-Set a verbal precedent from day one. Something as simple as, “Even though we utilize the belt system, our focus is on physical and mental development at each individual level.”
-Refer to students by their grade rather than as their belt. (Encourage those at your school to do the same.)
-Place less importance on receiving a new belt. For example, instead of awarding it at promotions or tying it onto the student at the next class, just have the student discretely pick up their new belt at the desk or office area when they attend their next class. (Possibly with a note that touches on physical and mental aspects they did well on, where they still need improvement, and some general motivation.)
-Instead of complimenting students on their progress to a new belt, compliments should focus around their physical and mental development. For example, don’t say, “great job getting your blue belt,” but rather something along the lines of, “Your Pinan Sandan is looking good! Your hard work really paid off.” (Make sure your higher ranking students also follow this precedent.)
-If possible, simplify the belt system for adults. Use 1/2 to 1/3 the number of belts for adults as used for children. (Remember, a 9 kyu system has the same number of promotions regardless of if there are 9 belts, 6 belts, or only 1 belt.)
-Lead by example. Be the change you want to see! When I removed my rank stripes I got berated and belittled hard core, then a few years later a few others, including “Master Instructors,” within the same association also started removing their rank stripes. (Note: some of these people were the ones who belittled me the most.)

On my original black belt you can see Ghost Stripes, where the belt is less frayed and faded, from being required to wear Rank Stripes for so long.

Published by mattskaratecorner

A martial arts student and instructor. A school teacher and researcher. A curmudgeon with a lot on his mind.

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